The Similarities of Pop Rock and Classical Music, Part 1

Zac HicksUncategorized3 Comments

The Similarities of Pop Rock and Classical Music, Part 1:*
How Producing an Album is Like Conducting a Symphony

I work in a context where two different styles of music are often pitted against one another.  The traditional/classical and the modern/rock genres are often seen as wholly other, inextricably separate.  However, I believe that these two enemies can become (and are becoming) allies.  I believe this at least partially because the more I analyze them, the more I find similarities between the two.

For traditional/classical exclusivists, there is often a condescending vitriol associated with how they speak of modern rock and pop music.  It is perceived as a “lower” art form, if it is even considered an art form at all.  (See, for instance, All God’s Children in Blue Suede Shoes, by Ken Myers—a book that, in my opinion, places too sharp a distinction between high, folk, and pop art.)

Over the years, I have been dabbling in the philosophy of aesthetics and reading up on thoughtful writers about the subject of pop rock.  My friend, Kevin Twit, has given me some food for thought and pointed me to some helpful resources in this discussion (see his helpful article).  I want to here add one small plank on the bridge between pop rock and classical music by offering a simple reflection, now that I am at the end of the recording process.

I’ve noticed that, on modern records, producers and mixers often have to function in a similar fashion to how conductors and arrangers of symphonies operate.  Here are six observations:

  1. A producer/mixer is interested in creating a homogenous ensemble sound out of individual instrumentalists.  A conductor has the same goal. 
  2. A producer/mixer is continually analyzing the piece for overall flow and movement, considering high points and low points.  A conductor sits down with the score before a rehearsal and does exactly the same thing.
  3. A producer/mixer is interested in seeing that different tracks within a song become more apparent in the arrangement at different times.  Likewise, a good conductor knows when to hush the upper strings so that the cellos can pop out with a melodic line, or darken the sound of the brass so that they blend and tuck in soft sections. 
  4. A producer/mixer is aware of exploiting the sonic spectrum found in any given instrument.  Many times in the recording, I found myself dialoguing with Josh, our mixer, about the EQ structure (the highs, mids, and lows) of any given track, whether it was an electric guitar, a low tom, or the human voice. A good conductor is aware of those same things in each instrument in his or her orchestra.  Many times, I’ve heard a conductor ask strings bow closer to the bridge for a more brittle, haunting sound, or horns adjust their embouchure.   Just as in producing/mixing, the orchestra is adjusting their EQ structure, though they might not call it that.
  5. A producer often looks at an overall album as a conductor will study various movements of a symphony.  They are both looking at key structure, overall flow, beginning and end points, long and short pauses, etc.  I often found myself wrestling with the position of songs (should a song be track number 8 or 9?) in relation to all the others.  Josh and I also worked on song spacing in the mastering process (how many seconds between each track?).  These aren’t merely technical questions, they’re artistic ones…ones that a classical conductor is asking about movements and spacing. 
  6. A producer/mixer often tries to make repeat sections of pieces have a slightly different hue.  A pop rock song generically has a V,C,V,C,B,C,C structure, and at any given repeat (such as at a second Chorus), a producer is interested in tweaking the arrangement or the instrumental highlights to paint the redundancy with a slightly different shade. Similarly, as a conductor passes from A to B and back to A again, he or she may choose to make the second A different than the first, though the notes might be exactly the same on the page.

I have no doubt that many readers will have additional thoughts to add to this incomplete reflection.  The overall point I want to make is that classical music and pop rock are not as dissimilar as some make it out to be.  Though there may be different governmental parameters for the styles and different instrumentation, many of the same meta-rules and aesthetic norms apply and are used in both fields.  Many of the same considerations make or break the success or failure of a piece. 

Perhaps my classical-only friends will look at an album like The Glad Sound and see it as musically banal or mundane.  My experience as a producer has led me to believe otherwise about the art of pop rock (yes, I said it: it’s an art).  He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

 *I have no doubt that there will be more reflections on this as time goes on, so I offer this as a “first installment” of yet-to-be-written reflections on this subject.


3 Comments on “The Similarities of Pop Rock and Classical Music, Part 1”

  1. What is the touchstone of aesthetic "good"?
    When we praise a piece of music or art, are we not merely praising our own taste?

    "That song is so beautiful." = "I feel emotionally stirred and satisfied by that arrangement of rhythm and melody."

    Text, can be judged because scripture is truth. ie. song x is bad when it contradicts scripture, and tells lies about God’s world.

    What is the bible of music composition?

    Listen to the cacophony of wild birds, the roar of the ocean, the percussion of thunder, the rhythm of the rain.

    Is nature our guide when special revelation is silent. Why did God give us a book and not a cd?

    We have the libretto of Israel’s music, but not the score.

  2. Preface: It seems nebulous…and not having studied aesthetics to any truly learned level…

    It seems reasonable that there is a normative aesthetic "good." Don’t ask me to pinpoint what that is. But it seems to me that the same argument that applies to a normative moral "good" (rooted in a single Being) also apply to this realm. For God is not only a moral Being, but an artistic One, too.

  3. I think you’re spot on with this – a producer/mixer/arranger is doing much the same thing, and using largely the same skills as a conductor/orchestral composer. Great orchestral examples you give. I think those who look down their noses at non-classical music construct straw men by listening to 1960s 4-track recordings or the top 40 tracks based entirely on some gimmicky sound. There is so much more out there!

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